Rightly or wrongly California has been saddled with a definite stereotype regarding its place in jazz history. Because of the state's distinction as the so-called birthplace of Cool Jazz, other styles of creative improvised music which also took root on its sunny shores have had a tough time gaining both legitimacy and publicity in the history books. West Coast jazz royalty such as Shelly Manne, Shorty Rogers and Russ Freeman all experimented with free improvisation, but none of them took the plunge to the same degree as innovators on the East Coast. Even Ornette Coleman's West Coast beginnings marked a more temperate approach than the embrace evidenced by his later East Coast recordings. For these reasons and more this disc and the group it chronicles come as something of a revelation.
Tommy Peltier's Jazz Corps was one of only a handful of bands actively and openly pursuing freer forms of collective improvisation as a viable musical outlet in California during the 1960's. The fact that their discography is virtually non-existent stands as testament to the cold reception their innovative music often received in critical circles. Aside from a much publicized date with Roland Kirk for the Pacific Jazz label (which has been reissued twice & is now currently out of print again!) the group never commercially recorded. The fact that they enjoyed a protracted stint at Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse that lasted over four years tells a different story and speaks vociferously to the importance of the listening public who often sees past the sometimes myopic perspectives of the critics.
The tracks on this disc are handpicked from Peltier's personal collection of performance tapes and the fidelity of the tunes is remarkably clean, especially considering their vintage. The program tracks the group through a variety of developmental stages and serves as a more comprehensive representation of the their sound and approach than the date they waxed with Kirk. To illustrate the point several tunes that were recorded at the Kirk session are included here in different live versions. The lack of studio polish and clever degree of spontaneity that infuses the tunes proves that the players deserved far further documentation than they were afforded. All but one was taped live at Rumsey's Lighthouse and the veteran bassist even sits in as recording engineer. It's a pleasure to be privy to the audience's often-enthusiastic reactions. Though treading new ground, the five were obviously well equipped to handle the freedoms they were unleashing upon themselves. Plummer's bass pyrotechnics on "The Time Miller" "Harplyness" and "Meanwhile" are excellent affirmations of the players' willingness to experiment and try out new directions on their instruments, and his thoughtful strums and plucks demonstrate a versatility that was rare among bassists of the day. Miller's malleable rhythms and Rodriguez's vibrantly melodic lines on both of his saxophones are further proof of the group's high levels of musicianship.
Peltier's compositions deliver a precarious balance between written charts and individual improvisation that doesn't always work completely, but those moments where things falter are often as intriguing as those when they gel. The group adds all sorts of unexpected twists and turns from the handclapped accompaniment on the opening tune, to the hoary howls and grunts that punctuate Blessing's shimmering cascades on "Chilly Pepper." The fact that these musicians were investigating new avenues of jazz expression in an environment sometimes hostile to their explorations makes this disc well worth delving into. The added reality that what they were creating was of consistently high quality moves their work far beyond mere historical curiosity. Listeners who like what they hear here are strongly advised to seek out the group's date with Kirk as well.